WEST HARTFORD — Countless theaters and concert venues went dark for more than a year as the pandemic forced live entertainment to either go virtual, or cancel shows completely.
West Hartford Summer Arts Festival was no exception.
But the festival and town are making up for lost time, and entertainment, with the launch of Welcome Back West Hartford, building on the usual summer musical and offering even more programs and other performances for free.
“Coming into 2021, we were really missing live theater and shows,” said Tyler Lauretti, the festival manager.
He said they knew many others in town shared that sentiment and so the festival and town’s leisure services department decided to create Welcome Back West Hartford to help reconnect people with these programs and shows. Staff asked residents what they missed the most and then set about bringing in those types of acts.
The festival includes concerts, magic shows, princess events, yoga and Matica Arts Circus in Eisenhower Park. “Mama Mia” debuted last weekend with more performances at 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday at Conard High School. There will also be a pops concert by the Summer Arts Festival Orchestra at the high school at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“There’s a little bit of something for everybody,” Lauretti said.
The Welcome Back festival began earlier this month and goes into the first week of August. It is open to anyone and a full schedule is available online.
Lauretti said the reception has been really positive, though the first week had some inclement weather.
“People have been pretty excited so far,” he said.
A hallmark of the festival will be the “Mama Mia” productions. It includes a cast of about 30 high school and college performers from all over the Hartford area.
The performers’ experiences have been largely similar to previous festivals, though the cast did spend the first three weeks of rehearsal wearing masks. Since a vast majority of the cast, crew and staff is vaccinated it was decided they would perform the show without masks, though clear masks are also available, said Kate Morran, the show’s director and choreographer.
“Now we’re getting to see smiles and see faces,” she said.
They’re still following protocols, especially social distancing, which will also be used for the audience.
Morran said she’s excited they can get together to make art and reconnect performers with audiences, especially with such a fun show that she says will have people singing along.
“It’s a performing artform and to lose that element and interaction with the audience has been a massive challenge,” she said, adding this applies to the performers, crews and theater educators, like herself.
Lauretti said the pandemic underscored the importance of programs like this with many people turning to television shows and movies for entertainment during the lockdown. He said the majority of people involved in those series and films most likely got their start in a summer theater production like this.
The production of “Mama Mia” itself will also be more inclusive than other versions with actress Riley Doerner cast in the traditionally male role of Sky.
“I’m really grateful that SAF trusted me to play a traditionally male role in a show that distinctly explores what makes a family,” Doerner said. “I’m so proud of the work that Stephanie and I have done to represent such a loving relationship on stage between Sophie and Sky. It’s an opportunity that has meant a lot to me personally and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”
Morran said they try to be as inclusive as possible with their casts but a lot of that depends on who auditions and the corresponding parts.
“We think representation really matters,” she said.
Morran said they’re not sure what the next steps are for the festival but knows it will be a continuation of the expanded offerings this year.
She said the theater festival was strong for 42 years before the pandemic and it will continue to be strong now, still offering the same experience and chance for friendships and memories the previous casts had.
“After being dark for an entire year due to the pandemic, it has been so wonderful to return to the stage with such a joyful show,” Morran said. “We are so proud of these young artists who have rehearsed in a fast, furious, and fun four-week process. The WHSAF community is all about inclusion and we are so happy to be back with our theater family.”